Yankees, Mets are stuck in the middle, which makes for a murky deadline

NEW YORK — Two hours before the New York Mets and New York Yankees faced off for the third of four games between the two most expensive teams in baseball this season — and one week before the trade deadline — Mets manager Buck Showalter considered the line of questions he was fielding from reporters.

“We’re having a real slow news day, aren’t we?” he said.

That would be a jarring assessment of any Subway Series, the clash of crosstown rivals that is historically cloaked in hype even when lacking stakes. But this one in particular should’ve been wrought with expectations and implications, along with media buzz.

On Opening Day, no one would’ve predicted that this late July meeting would feature two teams just trying to justify still having hope. Sure, fans could gripe about perceived weaknesses that went unaddressed, but the winter had seen the Yankees crown Aaron Judge their official captain after he committed to spending his career on the team, while the Mets kept their own homegrown guys, bringing back Brandon Nimmo and extending Jeff McNeil. The Mets spared no expense in replacing the bulk of their rotation, most notably by signing the reigning AL Cy Young award winner, and the Yankees got a second ace of their own in Carlos Rodón. It would take months to find out if the Yankees had done enough to get past the Astros in October or if the Mets had built something that wouldn’t crack under pressure. But over the winter, the 101-win Mets and 99-win Yankees were active, ambitious and going to be good again.

Some so-called expert even promised that “Next summer, there will be no better baseball city than New York.”

Look just at the results from the two-game set this week in the Bronx, and you could convince yourself that’s the case. Two formidable foes splitting a series, with the Mets winning behind their marquee pitching acquisition of the offseason in Justin Verlander and the Yankees doing the same with Rodón on the mound. Of course, even a clash of two totally middling teams will spit out a winner every time.

The Mets are bad, and the Yankees are in last place. There’s more to unpack: The Mets are, like, really bad when you consider their record payroll, while the Yankees are better but mired at the bottom of a division that can send only so many clubs to the playoffs, and they look like a shell of themselves in Judge’s absence.

Even the aces responsible for each team’s respective victory tell a more mixed story upon closer inspection. Verlander missed a month at the start of the season while on the injured list and currently sports his worst ERA since 2017 after struggling to find his form. Rodón’s win was his first for the Yankees after he missed the entire first half of the season.

Still, the upshot for both teams at this point in the season is that they need to figure out which way they’re headed — and quickly. All over the country, teams that know better than to put too much stock in small samples are waiting out the week in case these final few games before the deadline change their outlook. It’s something of a paradox: Small samples don’t matter, except that the wins and losses really do, and they come one night at a time.

Bad teams are not suddenly good just because they string together a few auspiciously timed wins, and those at the top won’t throw in the towel now, no matter how the week goes. This year, however, a vast portion of the league is neither, caught, instead, somewhere in between, where a couple of steps in the standings one way or the other doesn’t alter who a team is but can shift the course of what it does.

And that decision — to add or subtract from the amount of talent at the major-league level — affects how the final two months of the season play out. The middling teams that sell, presumably, will be worse in August and September than they would’ve been had they opted to augment. It’s more complicated than that — especially for underperforming coulda-been contenders loaded with shoulda-been stars on expensive contracts — but broadly speaking, the deadline is both a referendum and a sliding doors moment.

After the series split, the Yankees’ chances of making the postseason, according to Fangraphs, are 35.2%, down from 81.2% on Opening Day. The Mets are at 14.4% after starting the season at 77.1%. In a six-team-per-league postseason field, seven American League teams have better odds than the Yankees. Ten teams in the National League have better odds than the Mets. And yet: The Yankees will play the two best teams in their division between now and the deadline, while the Mets will face two teams totally out of the running.

This week’s Subway Series contained glimmers of whatever you wanted to look for — the Mets’ lineup has the potential to bash, Verlander can rise to the occasion, Rodón was worth the money, the Mets’ bullpen can blow almost any lead, the Yankees’ relief corps is quietly the best in baseball, and even in wins, Judge’s absence is palpable. Both teams are costing themselves on the basepaths and on defense, where true contenders would play cleaner.

This series probably did little to change either team’s plan at the deadline. Most likely, the Mets will be forced by their dwindling odds to sell, but tepidly, so as not to set themselves back too far. And the Yankees will look to buy, just not anything expensive or flashy. These are noncommittal paths for teams stuck in a purgatory of their own underperformance. But for the Yankees, at least, there is hope on the horizon.

By the time the second game was over Wednesday, Judge had returned from Florida, where he’d been playing in simulated games, to New York. Reports are that he could rejoin the team for the series that starts Friday in Baltimore. In 42 games without him, the Yankees have compiled the fourth-worst offense in all of baseball by wRC+. That’s an indictment of their roster construction — but one that is easily ignored when he’s healthy.

The Mets, on the other hand? Well, immediately after Showalter noted the paucity of compelling storylines at the start of the series, the next question was about the 2024 spring training schedule.

Sometimes the key to having hope is just to set your sights far enough in the future.

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